"You're a hag," Alexandra said.
The bulky, shambling woman's face stretched into a broad smile, showing teeth that were large, yellow, and sharp. "You say that like it's a bad thing."
"I didn't mean it that way." Alexandra tried to resist the impulse to back away, but she did anyway when the hag stepped forward. "Are you supposed to be here?"
The hag laughed. "Why, dear child, what a question for you to be asking me!"
"Central Territory has pretty strict laws about magical creatures in Muggle towns."
"I'm no more a 'creature' than you are. And just what are you doing here, little girl?"
Alexandra didn't think "Looking for my wand" would be a smart thing to say. "I was curious about the Muggle-Repelling Charms. I don't suppose you put them there?"
"Of course not. Why, I'd need a wand to do that, and it would be completely illegal for my kind – that is to say, 'creatures' like me – to own a wand." The hag's voice was as cheerful as her smile, but Alexandra had the feeling that both were as false as a rubber mask.
"I've been reading literature from HAGGIS," Alexandra said. "I'm, uh, actually a supporter of hags' rights." The first part, at least, was true – though she hadn't yet signed her 'Friend of HAGGIS' membership form and sent it in with the requested donation.
The hag made a dismissive gesture with one of her long-nailed hands. "HAGGIS... those accommodating old grandmothers." She narrowed her gleaming red eyes and took another step toward Alexandra. "Now, I believe we were talking about you, young witch. You are a witch, aren't you?"
"Of course. I have a wand, don't I?" Alexandra patted her jacket pocket where she normally kept her wand.
"Of course you do," the hag all but cooed. "But..." She brought a hard iron nail to her lips, as if considering. "How odd that you were walking around in the dark. My eyes aren't what they used to be, dear. Would you mind creating some light, the better to see you with?"
Alexandra stood there, thinking wildly.
The hag smiled toothily again. "You do know that spell, don't you? I understand it's one of the first things they teach young witches at witching school."
"I'd get in trouble with the Trace Office. Underage witches aren't allowed to use magic in Muggle neighborhoods."
"Ah." The hag shuffled forward ever so casually. "Well, dear, the interesting thing is that the Trace Office won't know you're here. This place isn't just protected against Muggles."
"Really?" Alexandra laid her hand on her pocket again. "You mean they wouldn't even detect an Unforgivable?"
The hag paused. "You don't really expect me to believe you know how to cast an Unforgivable Curse."
Alexandra shrugged, and hoped she wasn't sweating.
The hag grinned again. "Where are my manners? I haven't introduced myself. You can call me Martha."
"My name is Alexandra. Alexandra Quick."
The hag nodded gravely. "It's so nice to meet you, Alexandra."
"Likewise. So are you like, squatting here?"
"Why, I suppose you could say that." Martha began moving steadily toward Alexandra again, who tried to keep her feet rooted in place. "And the fact is, I'd very much hate for anyone to find out I'm here."
"I won't tell."
"I do wish I could believe you, but children... well, the truth is –" Martha's face no longer looked friendly at all. "– children are nasty, untrustworthy little creatures!" She lunged, and Alexandra ducked under those long, thick arms, scrambling frantically away from her. Martha whirled, no longer shambling with slow, uncertain movements, but with the speed of a big, strong predator. She was too close to the exit for Alexandra to slip past her without coming within arm's length again.
"Don't make me curse you," Alexandra said.
"Can you curse me?" Martha advanced, backing Alexandra toward a window, but her eyes were on Alexandra's hand, which still hovered near her jacket pocket. "I know they don't teach witches much at your age. Assuming you are a witch and not –" her smile was cunning and spiteful now " – a Squib."
Alexandra knew she was in trouble. Charlie was flapping about frantically on the roof, aware of her distress, and Alexandra thought, I wish you could help me, Charlie. I could really use it.
Martha grabbed her, moving so quickly Alexandra had no chance to duck away this time, and lifted her off the ground.
"Skinny little girl," the hag said, as if she had just caught a fish and was dissatisfied with its size.
Alexandra kicked her in the chest as hard as she could, and tried to kick her in the face, but Martha only laughed and shook her hard enough to whip her head violently back and forth. Alexandra cried out and blindly slapped the hag's forehead with her palm.
Martha dropped her and raised her hands to her forehead. Smoke curled from between her fingers. "You horrible little brat!" she screamed.
"Wicked!" screeched Charlie, and just as Martha lowered her hands from her face, the raven dived at her, pecking at her eyes and slashing at her nose, black wings beating the air. Martha howled and clawed the air, but the raven seemed to terrify her beyond reason as she shrieked hysterically and ran about blindly before tumbling to the floor.
Alexandra didn't know how her familiar had suddenly appeared inside, but she leaped to her feet and spoke one word: "Charlie!" The raven immediately left off harrying the hag and flew to her outstretched arm.
Alexandra breathed in and out rapidly, gauging the distance to the stairs. Martha could still intercept her easily. The hag slowly lifted her head to reveal a glowering face with blisters on her forehead and scratches on her nose. Her red eyes flashed with anger and fear, and Alexandra knew that fear – fear of her – was the only thing that would save her.
"How dare you call me a Squib?" she demanded, trying to imitate her father at his most outraged and arrogant. "I am Alexandra Octavia Quick, eighth child of Abraham Thorn!"
There was something not right about invoking her father's name like this – it sounded false in her ears, and hateful and wrong to say 'Squib' the way she did, but it had the desired effect on Martha, who clearly recognized the name of Abraham Thorn and shrank away from her.
Might as well lay it on thick. "That's right, I'm the seventh daughter of the Enemy of the Confederation! I've been to the Lands Below and fought the Generous Ones! I've been to the Lands Beyond, treated with the Most Deathly Power, and come back alive. My fate is written in the Stars Above. Do you really think I'm afraid of a hag?"
She was almost beginning to believe her own words. Martha looked more and more cowed. Alexandra filled her voice with all the menace she could: "If I draw my wand, I will turn you to stone and push you out a window and let you shatter on the ground outside, and then I'll turn you back to flesh and let the ravens feast on your eyes."
That was awesome, she thought. Better than one of her doggerel verses. She wished her friends could have heard it. It was an absurd self-congratulatory moment. But her exultation did not last long; she knew she was screwed if Martha called her bluff.
The hag's eyes, however, had become round, with a rim of white around their black and red centers. She remained crouching where she was, almost on hands and knees, and Alexandra detected a slight shiver.
"Now, now, you wouldn't do that to poor Martha," the hag said. "I was just trying to make sure I had someplace warm to hide from the winter wind. You know, so often we hags are forced to live in the wilds, it's rare we have shelter and I only wanted a cozy place to rest my old bones..."
"Tell me about this place and why you're really here. Don't talk to me like I'm some stupid little girl who's going to believe a story about you stumbling in here to take shelter from the cold."
"I didn't know your family still had an interest in this property." Martha's voice lost its false, syrupy sweetness, and became blunt and businesslike. "I thought it was abandoned and that Abra – your father – no longer took an interest in the business affairs of the Dark Convention."
Alexandra hoped her confusion wasn't showing on her face as she tried to maintain her bluff. "My father isn't interested in this property – I am. He doesn't live in Larkin Mills, I do. And if you want to use it, you should have asked me."
The hag squinted. "Begging your pardon, Miss... Quick, but I've got no reason to know the pedigree of every witch I meet. According to the Confederation Census, no Pruetts still live in this miserable Muggle town. Or so I was told."
Alexandra couldn't hide her surprise when Martha mentioned the Pruetts. Martha's squint became a frown. "Er, if I was misinformed, of course I apologize to you and... your father."
"The Pruetts still own Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections." Alexandra made it sound like a statement and not a question.
The hag's immense nose wrinkled, and she made a snuffling sound. "Well, I thought the business was no longer extant." Suddenly kindly again, she added, "That means it doesn't exist anymore –"
"I know what 'extant' means!"
Alexandra almost regretted snapping, but Martha bobbed her head rapidly. "Of course you do. Such a bright child, as I'd expect from a daughter of Thorn."
"So what have you been doing here?" Alexandra walked in a slow circle around the hag, holding her head high and keeping her thumb casually hooked in the pocket that supposedly contained her wand, all the while making sure she was out of reach. In an imitation of her posture and bearing that would have been comical in any other situation, Charlie sat on her shoulder, head erect and wings bent just so, as if ready to fly, or dive at Martha again.
It seemed to be working, for the moment. Martha, who had only half-risen to her feet, remained where she was and watched Alexandra and her familiar nervously.
"We, er, we've been using this warehouse for years," Martha said. "Your father never revoked his permission."
Alexandra looked out the window, as if casually inspecting the view, while she pondered the meaning of 'we.' She hated taking her eyes off the hag even for a moment, but relied on Charlie to act as her second pair of eyes.
"Has the Dark Convention been paying rent?" she asked.
She had no idea what sort of arrangement her father had with the Dark Convention, but when she turned back to Martha again, still with forced casualness, she seemed to have struck a nerve. Martha's head was lower, she was wringing her hands, and she was definitely more nervous.
"Nothing was ever spoken of," Martha muttered.
"So you just figured you could keep using our family's property for... what exactly?"
The hag's cough was like a rasp scraping up through a cavern. "Oh, storage, temporary refuge, this and that. We hags, we cobble a pigeon anywhere we can find one, buying, selling, lending..."
It sounded to Alexandra as if the Dark Convention was basically a bunch of smugglers and loan sharks. She wondered if all hags were in on this, if Martha were just one link in a chain reaching to the Goblin Market and beyond. Curiosity bubbled inside her. "And what exactly are you storing here? You don't sell things or... lend money to Muggles, do you?"
"Certainly not. This place is useful because neither Muggles nor wizards pay attention to it. But I'm a mere watcher. I wouldn't know what's actually kept here."
Martha sounded quite sincere, but Alexandra doubted her. "I want to see everything. I live here and I want to be sure nothing is endangering... my privacy or wizarding secrecy. I'm very displeased that no one asked for my permission to keep using this place."
"I assure you, I – we are very discreet." The rags wrapped around Martha's head were beginning to flutter loose, exposing wispy curls of hair like steel wool. "You know, if someone had only told me –"
"I'm sure someone will be talked to," Alexandra said ominously. She was actually beginning to enjoy this play-acting.
The hag gave her a sickly smile. "I assure you, the building has been left as we found it, and no one has trespassed... at least, not for long."
"You haven't been making anyone disappear, have you? Like children?" The sudden thought reminded Alexandra of the stakes, and made this game much less enjoyable.
Martha put a great, green hand to her bosom. "Dear child, I thought you said you support hags' rights! Surely you know better than to believe that sort of vile slander!" And when Alexandra continued to give her a flat, threatening stare, the hag added, "Besides, we don't shit where we eat, if you'll pardon my French, heh heh." Her cackle trailed off quickly. "Figure of speech."
"And you've never been seen by Muggles?"
"Muggles?" Martha spat. "They don't notice anything."
"So who's been bringing things in and out of here?"
"The less I know, the better, dear. When I hear someone Apparate, I keep my distance, yes, I do. Everything I need to know gets left me in writing, or occasionally an owl."
Alexandra folded her arms, thinking. She had no idea what to do with this information. Then she remembered the original purpose of her visit.
"When did you last hear someone Apparating?" she asked.
"On the ground floor, of course. That's where deliveries and collections are left."
"I didn't see anything down there."
"Of course not. I store them on the second floor, in one of the offices or closets. You aren't planning to go there, are you? There are, er, some curses and more mundane things you wouldn't want to encounter stumbling around in the dark."
"How do you manage, with your poor vision?"
Martha's smile widened. "Oh, I was just teasing you earlier, dear. We hags have excellent night vision. See in the dark better than a cat, we do."
It was a perfect place to hide her wand. If her father knew about this abandoned warehouse – and how could he not? – then he must have intended her to get past this hag guardian as a kind of test.
She did not at all like the idea of going downstairs with Martha. She also didn't like the idea of telling her father that she'd been too afraid to look in the most obvious place.
"Bring me a lamp," she said.
Martha narrowed her eyes, and Alexandra thought she was going to argue, or worse – but Charlie puffed up and cried, "Wicked! Wicked!"
Martha cringed and disappeared back into the hallway. Alexandra heard her walking around back there and opening a door. The third floor, she decided, must be the hag's living quarters. A minute later, Martha returned with a lantern and held it out.
Alexandra steeled herself and walked over to take it from her as if she weren't worried at all about the hag grabbing her again. Martha pursed her lips sullenly, but kept her clawed hands at her sides.
"Lead on," Alexandra said, gesturing with the lantern.
Martha muttered something under her breath. Charlie clacked nervously as Alexandra followed her to the stairs.
"It's all good, Charlie," Alexandra said, exuding confidence.
Back on the second floor, the lantern illuminated oak doors and what had once been lush carpets as they walked away from the stairs and deeper into the maze of corridors. Tubes hung from the ceiling, and there were empty spaces in the walls that might once have been dumbwaiters or something of the sort. They passed a very large, bent cage; it looked like Charlie's cage, but several times larger. There were posters with the Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections logo and pictures of candies of all shapes and sizes and colors, but hanging on the wall at the end of a wide middle corridor that came to a T-intersection was a life-sized portrait. As Alexandra held the light up to it, a bonneted witch in a black and white dress looked down at her, and raised a wrinkled hand to shield her face.
"I didn't think your kind had young," the painting said in a spiteful tone.
"Shut up you old –" Martha raised a clawed hand to the portrait, as if to tear at it, then checked herself and smiled horridly at Alexandra over her shoulder. "Oh, Goody Pruett and I do so enjoy our banter, heh heh."
Alexandra lowered the lantern and studied the familiar face. She had seen Goody Pruett's profile at the cake and ice cream store chain, but never encountered a magical portrait of the woman herself. She had, in fact, never realized that Goody Pruett was an actual person.
"I'm not a, er, young hag," she said.
Goody Pruett did a double-take. She put a hand to her chest. "Heavenly Stars Above! What are you doing here, young witch? Run, run for your life!"
"Fly, fly!" said Charlie, before Alexandra shushed the bird.
"It's okay," Alexandra said, "I'm not in any danger." She tried to sound convincing.
"She's a hag!" exclaimed Goody Pruett, pointing at Martha.
The portrait's mouth gaped open, then she shut it and shook her head. "No," she said. "Merciful heavens, you can't be one of them – those warlocks, those sorcerers! You're too young!"
"You mean the Dark Convention?"
"Whatever they call themselves nowadays! Blaggards and blackguards, scurrying in the shadows selling curses and noxious unguents and worse! To think that the business of my family for generations, the very foundations of our blessed enterprise, is now nothing more than a den for the vilest –"
"She'll go on like this for quite a long time, dear," said Martha. "Shall we, er, move along?"
Alexandra wondered what had kept Martha from tearing the portrait down, and why the Pruett matriarch was not hanging in the home of one of her descendants, instead of here in this abandoned warehouse. She shrugged apologetically at the portrait, who was indeed still railing, and followed Martha into a large room lined with old, dusty, wooden shelves full of crates and chests.
"Here's where I keep things until there's a pick-up to be made," Martha said. "I do hope you're not planning to open anything." Her eyes narrowed and her lips formed a tight smile. "There are a lot of people who would be very unhappy if you did that."
Alexandra affected a tone of indifference. "I'm not going to open anything." She walked into the room and shined the light around, trying not to shiver or think too hard about the fact that Martha was now blocking the exit. Charlie left her shoulder and perched on a shelf by the door, looking down at Martha, who edged away slightly.
The boxes and crates told her nothing about their contents. She concentrated, trying to feel magic, but the boxes could have been full of styrofoam packing peanuts for all that she could sense from them.
The absence of any magical sensation made her suddenly aware of what she wasn't feeling, though. The hickory wand that she had carried since she was eleven had always been close at hand if not on her person, and Alexandra was always aware of it. Until now, she had not consciously realized how she had been feeling its absence since her father took it away. She could feel magic! She could feel her wand. While she'd been searching her house and walking around town trying to sense her wand, she'd been sensing its absence all along. And with that realization, she knew with certainty that she would sense its presence. From exactly how far away, she didn't know, but when she casually laid a hand on a small wooden box, she felt a deep conviction that had her wand been in that box, she would have known it.
She walked around the room, brushing against crates, running her fingers along shelves, until Martha said nervously, "You really shouldn't touch things, dear. Curses..."
"You'd tell me if I were about to get cursed," Alexandra said. "Because if the curse didn't kill me, I'd curse you worse, and if it did kill me, my father would hunt you down and turn you inside out. I don't think you're that foolish, Martha." Again, casually, she touched her pocket, as if running her fingers along the length of her wand.
Martha fell silent, her eyes glowing dully.
Time to get out of here, Alexandra thought. She'd been wrong. Her wand wasn't here.
She walked to the door, gesturing to Charlie. The raven landed on her shoulder again. Alexandra walked past, close enough for the hag to reach out and squeeze her neck in one motion. She prayed hags didn't have hearing to match their vision or Martha would hear her heart pounding in her chest. She forced herself to appear cool and unconcerned, but once she was walking back down the corridor and could hear Martha lumbering behind her, it took every fiber of her self-control not to look over her shoulder or break into a run. "I'll let you know what we intend to do with this place. I guess you've been careful."
"Not letting any Muggles see you. Taking care of the place, making sure everything gets where it's supposed to go."
"What in heaven's name are you doing, girl?" shouted Goody Pruett as they walked past her portrait again. "Run! Fetch Aurors! Fetch the Regiment! Oh please, expunge my family's establishment of these Dark creatures! Our good name and fortune, ruined, ruined!"
Alexandra felt guilty leaving her there, even if she was just a portrait. "I know a Livia Pruett," she said.
Goody Pruett stopped mid-rant. "Livia?"
"Do you know her?"
"She and her sister came here once or twice. I haven't seen them since they were little girls," the portrait said wistfully.
Sister? Alexandra glanced at Martha, who was hunched over as she watched them angrily.
"Maybe," Alexandra said, "you might be happier somewhere other than here?"
"I'd be happier if she were somewhere other than here," Martha said. "I'd be ever so grateful if you'd take that piece of – I mean, your dear ancestor – with you."
"Why haven't you removed her yourself?" Alexandra asked.
Martha cackled laughter. "Oh, I've tried. But the old biddy is fire-proof, acid-proof, claw-, hammer-, and ax-proof. Only a member of the Pruett family can remove her." She clasped her hands together pleadingly. "Would you?"
"I can't carry a portrait that's bigger than me through the streets. Not right now." She looked up at Goody Pruett. "But I'll definitely be back."
Goody Pruett was actually silent until Alexandra and Martha were almost at the stairs. Then she called down the hallway: "She stole those boots!"
"Shut up!" screamed Martha. "Shut up, shut up, shut up, you lying smear of old paint and pus and poo!"
"She goes through all the chests brought to her by those dealers in illicitness and vice, and takes what she pleases!" Goody Pruett said gleefully. "Oh, you thought an old painting doesn't know what's actually going on here, didn't you, you festering bag of warts and boils?"
Martha shrieked with rage and raised her clawed hands as if she were going to rush at the portrait.
Alexandra proceeded downstairs without looking back. Martha came hurrying after her.
"Now, you mustn't believe a demented old painting," Martha said. "No need to mention such scurrilous accusations to, er, your father or anyone else, is there, dear?"
Alexandra turned around when she was at the front door.
"Those are nice-looking boots," she said.
"I wasn't going to keep them," Martha said. "I just wanted to wear them. It's not every day a body gets to try out a pair of Seven-League Boots."
"Seven-League Boots? Like in fairy tal– I mean, real Seven-League Boots?"
"Oh, they're rare as moonhen's teeth."
"And you tried to steal them."
"I wasn't stealing them, I was just borrowing them."
"So I'm sure if I told my father we should have this warehouse thoroughly searched for anything else you may have 'borrowed,' we wouldn't find anything."
Martha's face turned a paler shade of green. "Now, dear, that's really not necessary."
"Smugglers don't usually like it when you 'borrow' the merchandise." Alexandra knew this from TV. "But since you've been left here by yourself for years, I guess you've just gotten a little too comfortable. Just you and Goody Pruett. Wonder what else she'll tell me once she starts talking?"
"Oh, you're a cruel child, threatening an old woman like this!" Martha sounded desperate, but she was shuffling ominously closer until Charlie cawed and the hag backed away again.
"I really do like those boots," Alexandra said.
Martha's face wrinkled in misery, then she said, "Why, I'm sure no one would notice if you... borrowed them. Why don't you think of it as my little gift?"
With that, the hag sat heavily on the floor, thrust out one leg and then the other, and peeled the boots off of ankles as thick as hams. Once removed, they looked impossibly small next to the hag's huge bare feet. Alexandra thought they must magically resize to fit the wearer.
Martha stood up again, and despite her earlier protestations of seeking shelter from the cold, if she was bothered at all by standing on freezing-cold concrete in bare feet, she didn't show it. With the ingratiating smile of a grandmother holding out a tray of cookies, she offered Alexandra the boots. Alexandra took them at arm's length, staying aware of Martha's hands even while keeping her eyes locked on the hag's face.
"Remember," Alexandra said, "I live here. I don't want anyone shitting where I eat. Know what I mean?"
Charlie squawked. Martha smiled nervously. "You really are a daughter of Abraham Thorn, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am." Alexandra threw her shoulders back and walked outside.
"Fly, Charlie," she whispered as she stepped out onto the sidewalk, and the raven took off. She crossed the street and kept walking. She felt eyes on the back of her neck, making her skin prickle.
Only when she was a block away and around the corner, no longer in sight of the Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections warehouse, did she begin running. She ran all the way home, shed her jacket as she flew up the stairs, and opened her bedroom window to let Charlie in before slamming it shut again. Then she dropped the boots on the floor and sat on her bed and caught her breath. Cold sweat ran down her spine and she shivered for several minutes, while Charlie fluttered around saying, "Wicked! Wicked!"